Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, July 2, 2015

More Nancy Verrier, or, Don't Say "Ain't" When She Says "Is"


Quite some time ago, I posted here some comments about the claims made by the California MFT Nancy Verrier, to the effect that all adopted children, even those adopted on the day of birth, suffer from a “primal wound” caused by the disruption of the prenatal attachment to the mother, and experience life-long misery as a result. This belief is not congruent with anything we know about the responses of young infants to separation from familiar caregivers, nor with established information about the development of attachment. I wrote an open letter asking Nancy Verrier to explain her position and say why it should be considered plausible (http://childmyths.blogspot.com/2011/08/open-letter-to-Nancy-Verrier.html ). Verrier did not reply, unsurprisingly, but periodically I receive vituperative comments from her followers.

I recently received one of these privately rather than as a blog comment. The writer, whose name I will not mention because she did not apparently intend to make her remarks public, started   thus: “As an adopted person, a lawyer person, and a sensible person, I say this:- As long as the law is the way it is the worst case scenario is possible thus accounting for various responses but all under the rubric of the denial of our loss. What’s your investment in denying that unprocessed grief can [emotionally disturb ] a person…? And if you know [person’s name] you should recuse yourself from this discussion. Thank you.”
This relatively mild, though not very coherent, statement was followed by two others in which I was said to be “nasty nasty nasty” and [person’s name] was vilified for having adopted two children of an ethnicity different from her own.

I don’t think it will be useful to address the implied ad feminam attack (“what’s your investment…?”) as this is a common technique among proponents of alternative treatments and belief systems—rather than discussing the evidence for their viewpoint, they propose that the opponent has some pathological, malicious, or greedy reason for taking a contradictory position. The proponents don’t seem to see that this opens the possibility of questioning their own motives, but perhaps they realize that most of us who oppose them would not waste our time in that kind of discussion.

Let me just focus in on the primary point of the message I have quoted, that somehow my remarks involve “denial of our loss”. This is a frequent rejoinder from Verrier supporters, who accuse critics of claiming that they, the supporters are not unhappy.

No one, including me, has ever said that adopted individuals do not experience a sense of loss as they realize their own history. All adoptions begin with a narrative of sadness, as their stories may involve abandonment of mother and child by a biological father, poverty, the fear and shame of a young girl, the death of one or both parents, civil war, etc., etc. Although some adoptive families may experience undiluted joy and satisfaction from bringing a new child into their home, many also have a history of their own sadness because of infertility or even the deaths of children in the past. There is plenty of sadness to go around, some of it like the sadness that may be found in nonadoptive families, some of it characteristic of adoption. Whether this narrative of sadness does or does not have a life-long impact on an individual depends on factors like personality and resilience, a tendency to depression or to bipolar disorders, a culture’s perspective on the adopted individual (for example, native Hawaiian culture does not consider a person to have any connection with the birth family that did not rear her), and of course the family’s handling of the adoption as “secret” or otherwise.  

Verrier’s claim, and the claim of the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) group that supports her, is that just as older children may suffer emotionally from separation from familiar people, even the youngest infants experience rage and grief at separation from a birth mother to whom they have developed a prenatal emotional attachment. (Such a posited attachment is explained variously as having biological/genetic causes or by prenatal telepathic communication.)

It is true that children between about 8 months and 2 1/2 years are likely to respond with deep depression and social withdrawal when separated from familiar attachment figures. With sensitive, nurturing care, over time they recover from this loss and form new attachments, but without sensitive care, or if subjected to several such losses, they may be handicapped in their emotional and social lives. Infants under perhaps 6 months of age, however, do not show concern about separation or anxiety about the approach of unfamiliar people. Their behavior does not include attachment behavior like watching or trying to stay near familiar caregivers, or like depression, feeding and sleeping difficulties, irritability, or apathy when separated abruptly and  for a long period. For these reasons, it appears implausible that early-adopted children suffer from a “primal wound” (as opposed to sadness and concern about their history) or that any grief they feel can be attributed to the loss of the birth mother. (N.B. the biological father is only rarely mentioned in these discussions, although attachment to a father can be as strong as or even stronger than that to the mother.)

The implication of the Verrier perspective and that of my correspondent quoted earlier is that adoption is never an acceptable solution to the problem of care for a child. This, I think, is a wrong conclusion, given what is known about early emotional development. Certainly it would be repugnant to buy a child from a poverty-stricken mother, when she could be helped to care for her family, and I consider it highly reprehensible for church groups to go to Ethiopia or elsewhere and take children from parents who do not actually have a concept of adoption, but believe the children will return to them. But these concerns are often irrelevant to the choices to be made for infants born to very young or incompetent mothers, to mothers who are very sick, or to mothers who are mentally ill, all of whom may lack social support systems and adequate resources to care for a child. In those cases, the narrative of sadness will be part of the child’s life whether or not he is adopted, and in fact may be worse if he remains with the birth mother.

Incidentally, I have communicated with [person’s name] mentioned earlier. Interestingly, she had no idea that the Verrier position was known outside the pathology of my correspondent—an inadvertent comment on the plausibility of that position.   


8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Certainly you can ask them here, and I would appreciate it if you would do so.

      I just want to warn you, I am traveling this week and will not always have access to the Internet, so don't be offended if I don't manage to post or answer your comments right away.

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  2. I really enjoy reading other perspectives on the topic. I am told as an adoptee that I must be surpessing feelings since taking the position that debates the theory of the primal wound; or the idea that there is this irreversible damage done to me that makes me incapable to have normal relationships. I was told this during attachment therapy which was heavily encouraged to my adoptive parents when I was going through a depression and a lack of interest in peer relations at age 17. I can't say if it was adoption related but it was hammered into me that it indeed was. i have a few other questions and wondered if here was a good place to ask?

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    1. I would really like to hear all about this, as well as to answer any questions I can.

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  3. Oops looks like I posted twice ... But anyway my therapists have suggested a trauma did occurs when I was placed and even went as far to say that babies who are conceived unwantedly or unexpectedly feel that sense of truly "not being wanted or loved." I can say that this thought never occurred to me until it was brought up by my therapist in terms of my adoption.., and through that it was hard for me NOT to see my adoption as this traumatic event; which until previously hadn't entered my mind. The more "therapy" I received for my "unattached" personality, the worse I felt about myself as someone with no hope at a normal life. So I guess my question is... Do you think it's possible that adoptees who struggle are merely reacting to a situation that hasn't been "normalized" by the adopted parents ? I felt as though I was well adjusted and at peace with my adoption until I felt "other" and words like "attached and not attached" came up. In fact I never viewed myself as wounded ... And it has been agonizing to be viewed that way by my adoptive parents .

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    1. Thanks for your comments! I have no doubt that there are some adoptees, especially those who were adopted in later childhood, who went through many homes, or who remember being neglected and abused, who feel unwanted and don't trust situations where someone claims to care for them-- such a perception of the world would only be reasonable for them.

      But to assume that all adopted people have the same experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and expectations-- well, that's like assuming that all children from birth to age 18 have the same abilities and needs. And when adoptive parents are informed by supposedly reliable sources that their children must feel unattached and unwanted, that's a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. If the parents take this statement as truth and communicate it to the children, some children will accept it as reality and identify all negative emotions as related to their adoption, while others, like you, will not accept it but will be alienated from parents who don't seem to understand the reality of the child's life.

      All adoptees must deal with a life narrative that began with someone's sadness or pain, but of course many nonadopted children have similar narratives. In both cases, people have struggles that can be worsened or helped by caregivers' positive or negative views of life.

      Would you mind telling more about the nature of the therapy you experienced-- how old you were, for example, and what the therapist's training was, if you know that?

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  4. I was sent to a particularly well known school out in Missouri when I was 17. There were no rebirthing tactics as I have read from accounts of attachment therapy; but more of a behavior mod theme. Although they claimed to pride themselves in NOT being one of the "typical behavior modification" programs, psychologically they got you to do what they wanted. All paved with good intentions, my issues were never with the therapy per se, (even though I knew it was all outlandish and faked my program there), but with the interaction with staff and students . Restraints were put on students for things as simple as walking away from a staff member or refusing to participate in an activity ( which would lead to a regrouping session of working for however long it took outside until the student opened up). It was a place designed to help adoptees with their issues, but I found most of them to just act their way through it. They wanted you to feel grateful for your adoptive family and for all you put them through; which was news to me that I had a problem in the first place. The more I denied it the longer they threatens to keep me there, but I was turning 18 in was than a year so I was one of the lucky ones. Some had been there for years. I'm not sure what left me with such a horrific and sour taste but it was traumatizing.... I began to use illegal drugs ( none of which I had ever done before the experience nor drink during my high school years) but my parents felt convinced that my behavior was intolerable , which I think it was but I'm not sure if it was attachment related as much as it was teenage defiance and longing to feel normal; I had been to therapists my whole life. My therapist at this school was a cool lady ...but that's about it. Not much depth or connection did I feel toward her ... But I think it was the circumstances I was in not so much her training. She was a psychologist and had some background in adoption I'm pretty sure... I always felt on edge with her because I was so concerned about my behavior so I could get out of there rather than the therapy. I painfully pretended in sessions that my horrible behavior was caused by my early separation (primal wound theory was supported there) and that it was wrong of me to not work on my issues to have a better relationship with the two people who loved me...my parents. I felt immense shame for my difficult behavior but instead of bonding me with my parents it did the opposite. I still actually cringe at the feeling of being dropped off there. And it wasn't as if the experience was abusive or they made me explore things I didn't want to; but it was the constant fear I felt of my life being controlled by strangers who were not all equipped or trained in therapy (they called them coaches). They could restrain you at any point or even hold a "group" on your behavior which includ d publicly shaming a student on their behavior. The behaviors could include refusual to eat, poor hygiene, or even becoming too close with another student which they called "boundaries" and you could be separated at any point from a close friend that you made if they believe the two students behavior is suspect. paranoia and control were the two themes of this place and I will continue to advocate for adoptees to be treated properly and not sent to some of these places. I have participated in several online groups that keep tabs of therapeutic boarding schools all over the country, I was lucky not to have ended up at one with abuse.

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    1. You give such strong evidence that a treatment can be an "emotional burden" and be experienced as abusive even though there is little or no physical maltreatment.

      It's interesting that you were able to go with the program and pretend that you had the claimed experiences. I wonder how many kids who end up doing this actually come to believe the story they have to tell? This happens in false confessions by teenagers, who may internalize the story they have been forced to tell and think for months or years that it was true.

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